Blue-footed Boobies, Frigatebirds, & More in the Galapagos

I love these raw moist dawns with
a thousand birds you hear but can’t
quite see in the mist.

– Jim Harrison, Another Country

A highlight for most visitors to the Galapagos Islands is seeing the blue-footed boobies throughout the archipelago. While we saw plenty of them on our eight days with Lindblad Expeditions, it wasn’t until the seventh day that we got up close to so many of them. No matter how often we saw them, either perched on cliffs or swooping into the water for fish, it was an exciting and beautiful experience.

blue-footed boobies diving for food
Boobies diving for a meal

Obviously, there are more birds to see around the Galapagos, but boobies and great frigatebirds are the more popular ones — the frigatebirds are particularly of interest during mating season, which was when I visited. On the tour, we also got to see flamingos (though off in the distance), North American oystercatchers, swallow-tailed gulls, pelicans, flightless cormorants, and Galapagos penguins. I even got a video of some of the birds (and a lot of the babies).

flightless cormorant galapagos
A flightless cormorant on Isla Fernandina

While the blue-footed boobies and great frigatebirds were almost everywhere in the Galapagos, other species were not as common. The North American oyster catcher, while not endemic, was a beautiful bird to spot in multiple places. The nearest I got to them was in Santiago when our group watched babies being fed.

north american oystercatchers
North American Oystercatchers and babies at Santiago

Frigatebirds at North Seymour

On the first full day of the trip, we disembarked at North Seymour Island, one of the smaller uninhabited islands in the archipelago. This is a nesting ground for some of the birds, including the blue-footed booby and great frigatebird — this being the mating season, it was more active than at other times. We got distracted on our walk with all the sea lions and a few iguanas.

nesting blue footed booby
A nesting booby at North Seymour

North Seymour was more interesting because it was primarily a mating ground for the great frigatebirds, which we mostly viewed from afar as they soared overhead — they are wonderful and graceful flying above the Galapagos. But during mating season, it’s more of a spectacle as the males attract mates by inflating their neck pouch. Unfortunately, many of the great frigatebirds were not perched next to the trail, but rather farther into the area that human visitors aren’t allowed to enter. And I, of course, had destroyed my camera (for which I had bought a more powerful zoom lens that I didn’t even get to use) on the first excursion the day before.

great frigatebirds galapagos
More great frigatebirds at North Seymour. A male in the back has his pouch slightly inflated

We were, however, able to see at least one frigatebird with its neck pouch puffed out — unfortunately, because my camera had decided it wanted to take a swim on the first day, I wasn’t able to use that wonderful new zoom lens I bought to capture a better picture. Some people on the trip on better pictures of the male frigatebirds with the pouches inflated.

great frigatebird galapagos
A great frigatebird with its pouch inflated to attract a mate

We also came across a juvenile great frigatebird, which was unusual as they weren’t known to fly to North Seymour until they’re older. Maybe it was just curious about the mating grounds.

juvenile frigatebird
A juvenile great frigatebird at North Seymour

While seeing the great frigatebirds attracting mates was amazing, we more often watched them soaring overhead, particularly in the mornings. I should have woken up earlier most days to watch the sunrise around the islands, but I only watched once at Urbina Bay. That morning I watched two great frigatebirds flying above the ship — it wasn’t the easiest task to capture the sight with an older phone camera, but I managed to get a few decent shots with the dawn light.

Frigatebirds flying above the deck just after sunrise around Isla Isabela

At other times during the trip, we encountered more blue-footed boobies from afar. During a Zodiac excursion through Bolivar Channel between Fernandina and Isabela, we watched the birds perched on the lava cliffs. As we were gazing up at them, it was more difficult to see their bright blue feet.

blue footed booby galapagos
Blue-footed booby with a splooting marine iguana

Penguins in the Galapagos?

Of course, the highlight of that Zodiac excursion was not the blue-footed boobies, but rather the Galapagos penguins. The smallest species of penguin is also the only one that lives along the equator. This was the only time during the trip that I saw penguins on the rocks — the other time I saw them, they were swimming just below the surface as I kayaked along (not exactly easy to get a picture of them zooming around in search of fish). We tried to get closer to the penguins while on the Zodiac, but it wasn’t easy with the currents and rocks.

galapagos penguins
Just hanging out on the rocks

Bolivar Channel is the only part of the Galapagos where penguins are found because the water is colder. While the waters around the archipelago are cooler than one would imagine along the equator, much of it still isn’t cold enough for some species, like the penguin. Water temperature is also a reason you won’t find coral reefs in the area.

galapagos penguins
Galapagos penguins hanging out with the sea lions

Boobies Everywhere

On the final full day in the Galapagos, we got much closer to the blue-footed boobies, as well as some other native creatures. The morning involved a pleasant hike at Punta Pitt on San Cristobal Island that ended with swimming and snorkeling with the sea lions playing (and sometimes getting quite close). This hike was memorable for more than beauty of the blue-footed boobies — the landscape and fauna were also impressive, particularly the red sesuvium (carpet weed). This succulent turns red toward the end of the rainy season.

red sesuvium
Red susuvium at Punta Pitt

We came across numerous nesting blue-footed boobies along the trail. We had to be careful not to cross into the circle of bird poop that denotes the home of the baby boobies.

blue-footed boobies
Children can be jerks, even in the animal kingdom

The babies ranged in age and size — some were big and fluffy, the same size as adults. Naturalists explained that the boobies had three chicks on average, but only one would survive. Usually, the first would die early and the other two would fight for food from the parents until only one remained. We witnessed babies being fed and noticed the size difference between the active one getting fed and the runt that looked almost dead.

blue footed boobies galapagos
An adult blue-footed booby with its babies

The hike around Punta Pitt was also the only place in the Galapagos that we saw red-footed boobies. As we were told, there are two varieties of red-footed boobies — the more common one has brown feathers, while the less common, due to its recessive gene, is white.

red footed booby
Red-footed booby in the distance

Unlike the blue-footed boobies, the red-footed boobies tend to perch on branches and nest in the small trees. Their feet are also different — we were able to see the webbed feet of one curled around the branch, something the blue-footed booby can’t do.

White red-footed booby
A nesting white red-footed booby at Punta Pitt

As with all the hikes with Lindblad Expeditions, it was a rather slow stroll for an avid hiker, but it was more than enjoyable. Listening to the naturalists talk about the wildlife and fauna was fascinating — and there were plenty of questions to ask along the way.

blue-footed boobies galapagos

Almost every day on the trip through the Galapagos was an avian adventure, except for the days that focused on reptiles.

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